This story is part of my ongoing unpublished (and unfinished) Old West fantasy, Original Destiny, Manifest Sin. As I said before, watch for it in a bookstore near you around 2017. In the mean time, if you like, please consider supporting Flytrap and Tropism Press.
The Dying Dream of Water
by Jay Lake
Peony Sykes stood next to her family's second wagon, spattered with her mother's blood. Red rock buttes surrounded the killing ground like pillars of a great tabernacle. Buzzards already circled overhead in the blinding summer sky as the laughing Apache drove his mount toward her. He'd sheathed his rifle in favor of an axe.
Instead of fleeing, Peony stepped directly into the pony's path with a Bowie knife braced in both hands. The shock of impact nearly broke her wrists but the pony collapsed toward her in a spray of blood. The brave was thrown forward.
Their eyes met for one improbable moment, he airborne with axe in hand, her beneath the warm pressure of the pony's corpse. The Apache was still laughing when he hit the sandstone to snap his neck.
She lay beneath the dead pony, covered in its heartsblood. The Indian's eyes had been brown as her father's -- the color of walnuts soaking in a bowl. Peony watched the buzzards circle as a series of slow, deliberate gunshots rang out. She counted them.
Where was her bullet? Or would there be a much rougher mercy for her? Peony's breath became quick, ragged as she prayed for the shot.
Oh Lord, I am only fourteen. Please let me die a virgin this day.
She didn't pray too hard, though. Sometimes the angels heard. They were worse than Indians.
Then there was whinnying. The horses being cut loose? Two more shots, followed by meaty thumps. Their oxen being killed, Peony realized. A horse trotted by, its rider reaching down to pick up the man she had slain. Peony tracked him with her eyes, but didn't turn her head,
Just a dead girl, covered in blood. No one you want.
His eyes were as brown as the dead man's, she saw, but the two of them didn't connect even for that moment she'd shared before. The new brave stared at the fallen pony, shrugged, then rode off.
She heard a few more gunshots, seemingly random, then the clatter of hooves down the canyon. Finally, silence, except for a steady pattering like the fall of pebbles.
Thank you, Lord.
But then it was too much trouble to get the dead pony off of her. The red rock towers were beautiful in the sunlight. Somehow Peony could even smell sage above the scent of slaughter. It was a comfort as she waited, for what she didn't know. She lay there with blood baking onto her face until the faithless cow dog bitch came whining from under one of the wagons to lick her clean.
"Damn you, Belle," Peony whispered. "Where were you when the guns were drawn?"
Belle whined then began sniffing around the dead pony.
Peony wiggled and shifted her weight. There was no way she could move a horse, even a small one, but with time and patience she could pull herself out from under it. Both of her wrists were swollen -- bruised and sprained it seemed -- which made the process even slower and more painful.
She finally sat up to see Belle whining next to a buckskin saddlebag on the left, upward side of the dead pony. Peony didn't remember seeing saddlebags in that mad moment of death but there it was.
"Come away, Belle," she said.
The dog whined, shivering, her tail thumping on the rock.
The minor mystery of the saddlebag was better than looking for what was left of her family.
Peony searched for the Bowie knife in order to safely poke at the saddlebag but she couldn't find it. Probably buried in the horse's chest, she realized. The horse could darn well keep it. The way her hands felt she didn't think she could hold on to it anyway. So she nudged the saddlebag with the toe of her boot.
She stared at Belle. "That wasn't you, was it?"
The dog continued to whine. Clearly, Belle was in misery, but Peony was nowhere near ready to say everything was all right between them.
She nudged the saddlebag again.
It whimpered again.
Peony fell to her knees and tugged leather flap open. Even that much strain was agony to her shocked wrists.
Inside was a blanket-wrapped bundle with a tiny fist poking through.
"Oh Lord," Peony said. She drew the bundle out and cradled it in her arms. The blanket fell open to reveal the ugliest baby she had ever seen in her life. "Oh Lord."
It had a sloping forehead and a massive nose, almost a snout, with heavy ridges over the eyes. The skin was covered with fine silver fur, like a winter fox's.
This baby was a Child of God.
It had to be. Just holding it would get her hanged in Mormon Eden or Tejas. Imprisoned, at the least, back in the United States or up in Canada.
And the Apache would return for it soon. The baby was a mighty prize. No wonder they hadn't been interested in more than casual killing of her family.
Put it back.
The thought came to Peony in a voice of prayer, as if God were talking to her.
Belle whined, tail thumping, looking more encouraged.
"No," Peony told God, or her conscience, whichever had been speaking. She closed the blanket over the baby's head. "You're not staying here to die," she whispered to the bundle.
Then there was the sad, messy business of checking on her family. Mama still sat on the wagon board, her shattered head staring empty-eyed into a red rock hell. Mama's raven-black hair was matted with blood. Probably her own was as well -- Peony, the bloody raven. The ox Esau was dead. They'd shot the water barrels, too.
That explained the pattering.
Up by the front wagon Papa lay face down next to the ox Jacob. His Springfield carbine stuck out from under him. Peony reached down with her free hand and tugged it loose, though the pulling hurt her wrist something fierce.
Can't live without a gun. Not in the new West.
Frank and Edward had died behind the wagon's board, pistols in their hands. Baby Louisa was between them with a neat hole in her forehead even though she wasn't old enough to say the word Apache, let alone be a threat to them.
Peony looked at the buzzards starting to land around her. Maybe that bullet had been a mercy to Baby Louisa. There was no water left in the shattered barrels. This canyon showed no signs of springs or streams.
She wanted to bury them, but it would have taken dynamite to break open a grave here. If she burned them in the wagons that would just call the Apache back all the sooner.
In fact, Peony couldn't stay at all. They'd be back for the baby shortly enough. She shimmied out of her petticoats and skirt until she stood in the dungarees she habitually wore beneath them to her Mama's annoyance. Not much point in being a good Christian lady anymore. With that thought, she went and tugged Frank's buckskin jacket out from under the board of the lead wagon. If she lived until nightfall, she'd need it. In the meantime she wrapped the baby in the jacket for another layer of protection.
"Where do we go now?" she asked the dog.
Belle whined, then started up the gravel slope to Peony's left. Peony looked where the dog was heading. Sage and creosote struggled in thin patches along the slope, which meant there was some water here sometime. The slope tilted up until it met a cliff wall that soared into the sky, that side of the canyon lined with layers of every color of red, white and gray.
Could there be a spring up there?
She couldn't go either direction along the canyon trail. The Indians would find her. Peony rolled her father over using the rifle butt for leverage and searched his pockets for bullets. She kissed his bloody forehead, then wiped the salt taste from her lips and followed the dog up the slope.
The steep gravel seemed to go on much further than it had any business doing. Belle followed a trail of sorts. Peony couldn't imagine who or what had made it here. There wouldn't be enough game living in this canyon to form their own trails, and people certainly didn't live here.
She was exposed, plain as an ant on a kitchen table. If the Apache came back now they'd see her. They could pick her off for sport. She hoped she was high enough up for them to use bullets. Arrows seemed too a slow way to die.
The Child of God whimpered once, but then settled into the sliding rhythm of Peony's steps just as Baby Louisa might have. It didn't seem heavy. She wondered how old it was. Where its mother was. Dead, no doubt, for the Apache to be carrying the baby homeward. It must be hungry -- Baby Louisa always was.
"Nothing for you but my finger, when I can give it to you," Peony whispered. Even that much of her voice sounded loud out on the slopes so she shut up and kept following the dog.
They rested after the better part of an hour, not too far below where the gravel slope met the vertical rise of the cliff wall. A fang-shaped rock stuck upward, lending a narrow sliver of shade to the trail. Peony took shelter from the sun and gave the baby the tip of her pinkie finger. Its gums clamped down greedy and hard as it suckled.
"Ain't got much time left on this Earth, none of the three of us," she said to Belle and the baby.
The baby's eyes opened at the sound of Peony's voice. They were blue as the first ice of winter on a sweetwater pond.
"Where do your people go when you die?" Peony asked the baby. "I hear tell you ain't got no Original Sin. You don't need no soul saving."
The baby grinned around her finger.
Down in the canyon the Apache came back. Peony sat very still in her patch of shade, one hand cradling the baby, the other hand on Belle's muzzle. The darned dog hadn't so much as growled when the Indians first attacked but it would be just like the stupid bitch to set to barking now.
Belle whined once, then settled tight against Peony. She immediately regretted the hard thoughts.
There were six of the Indians by her count. It was the same band that had massacred her family. She could tell because they were leading the three Sykes horses on lines -- Papa's Bucephalus, Frank's Kennesaw, and Faith, the gentle old mare than Mama had shared with Edward and Peony. The brave she had killed was slung over Faith's back.
Two of the Apache dismounted while the others scanned the canyon with rifles ready. If her shade held and she didn't make any noise, Peony figured she should be invisible to them, though she supposed they could track her up the gravel slope easily enough and work out where she was.
She let go of Belle and cradled the carbine across her knees. Papa always said it was too bad she was a girl because Peony had always been the best shot in the family. She figured Papa's 1864 Springfield carbine had range on whatever rifles the Apache had gotten from Burr's Tejas or traded down from the Mormons up north. Her enemies would have to come up the slope to get in range of her.
Peony didn't figure on killing six before they killed her. She did figure on killing enough to make them kill her before they worked their way on her body instead of after.
The dismounted braves checked over the dead pony. Peony could see them discussing the empty saddlebag. After a little while they took lumber from the wagons and used it to lever the pony over to its other side.
There was another saddlebag. They didn't like what they failed to find there either.
Here they come, she thought, as the two on foot studied the ground around them carefully.
Then the four mounted braves began firing and shrieking -- not at her. They were shooting back up the canyon to the northwest, in the direction from which they had just returned.
A pair of angels soared over the raiding party. Great black-feathered buzzards of God, as Papa had sometimes called them. The dismounted Apache leapt to their horses and the group galloped back up the canyon, firing at the angels until the horses and their riders had passed out of sight.
Peony held her breath as long as she could. Angels were worse than Apache. Everybody knew that. One stayed airborne, circling over the wagons as the other landed. It stalked about sniffing the air before looking beneath the wagon beds and under the canvas covers. It even stooped to study the corpses of the oxen and the pony.
She had started to breathe in fast, shallow pants, keeping as quiet as possible, when the second angel took to the air again. Its fellow erupted in an ear-splitting shriek that caused lighting to stab down from the clear sky, forking to strike each wagon. Both burst into flames. Then the angels headed off after the Indians, somehow fast and lazy at the same time like a cat could be.
Peony finally allowed herself a shuddering gasp of fear. "Come on," she told the baby and the dog. "Let's find the other end of this trail. At least it would be a quiet place to die."
As she stepped away from the rock where she'd been sheltering, Peony saw that it had three handprints painted on it right above where she'd been sitting. Two were red, pointing up. One was black, pointing down.
She didn't know if they were curse or protection, but she bowed to the rock anyway. "Thank you," Peony said. Then she followed her dog some more.
Up close the cliff face wasn't nearly as smooth as it had looked from the canyon floor. There were folds like a giant drapery, strange fissures and cracks, little pockets that could have denned foxes in a more pleasant climate. Under other circumstances Peony could have stared at the patterns in the stone for hours, sketching them or just committing them to memory,
The trail wandered along at the top of the gravel slope. Sometimes it looped away to dodge a protruding knee in the cliff. Sometimes it crossed a shelf of bare stone, providing a brief respite to her aching feet. Peony wore Frank's hand-me-down socks with her boots. She got them when they'd been darned so many times he complained of blisters when riding in them.
Now she had her brother's blisters to go with his jacket.
That thought brought the fate of her family crashing back in a bloody siege of memory. Her breath broke in dry, ragged sobs as Peony sank to her heels against the warm rock of the canyon wall.
Could she have saved them? How? She'd killed one Apache, which was more than Papa and her brothers had even with their guns.
Maybe they'd had bullet medicine. The Indians were carrying a Child of God, pursued by angels. Anything was possible in the West.
Too bad the Sykes family hadn't had bullet medicine. Good Christians didn't believe in such heathen things, for all the evidence of their eyes.
She opened the jacket and the blanket within to check on the baby. It snored gently, those great nostrils flaring with each breath. Peony held it close the way she liked to hold Baby Louisa. Where Baby Louisa had always smelled of sour milk and vinegar, this baby smelled of sweet fodder and summer afternoons.
Peony kissed the baby lightly and folded it back into its cocoon. Its nappie probably needed cleaning, but she had no water or spare cloth, so what was the point?
On your feet, she thought, as Belle whined. Back up. Keep walking.
By nightfall her blisters were burning. Peony continued moving mostly so she could find a good place to stop and rest. She thought she'd heard angels screaming just after the sun had fled the canyon, but she never saw the great black monsters again. There had been no more sign of the Apache either.
Nevertheless she didn't really expect to be able to walk further the next morning. Not without food and, more importantly, water. Even the struggling sage and creosote had abandoned her. She hadn't remembered the canyon being this long as they'd driven into it that morning, but then she'd been riding a wagon board and talking about boys and men with Mama.
The crooked pathway of sky visible above the canyon showed a carpet of stars as brilliant as any Peony could remember in her life. Though the moon was not visible down in the canyon, the starlight kept the path bright. The shadows were another matter entirely.
Belle began to run ahead in the darkening evening, checking back every few minutes with low yips before darting off again. Peony liked to think that the dog was scouting for a resting place, but she was afraid that Belle was seeking an escape, some dog-sized hole to a paradise of running water and slow-footed rabbits.
The dog barked once then fell silent. She didn't come back.
"Belle," Peony whispered. She was afraid to shout. She shifted the baby on her left arm -- it had become unaccountably heavier as the day had gone on -- and cradled the carbine in her right. It took a little while to check the bolt but she didn't want to set the baby down in the dark. The infant whimpered with the movement before quieting again.
Peony eased forward with the carbine heavy on her arm. She'd be a horrid shot this way, but she didn't have a choice, at least until she'd found her target. If she had to then she could drop the baby. It was well wrapped enough to survive a fall.
The trail curved around another rock knee. She moved slowly, trying not to slip on the gravel. Peony thought she could hear Belle panting ahead.
"Hey, girl," she whispered.
The dog whined but didn't come.
Darn and double darn.
She still wasn't willing to put the baby down. Peony eased around the curve of the rock, following the barrel of her carbine.
"Don't reckon you need that here," said a voice rusty with disuse. It was an old man's quaver.
Peony almost fired from fright. Ahead of her the trail vanished into another pool of shadow. She could hear Belle panting in the darkness. "Not sure what I need here, sir," she said. The fear in her own voice made Peony mad.
"Good will." The man's voice cracked, falling into a cough. After a moment he continued. "'Scuse me. Good will, and a measure of honesty. Hot lead won't help you much, missy."
She eased into the shadow herself to nearly step on the dog. Belle whined again. Out of the starlight, Peony simply stood still until her eyes adjusted to the deeper darkness.
Eventually she could see Belle was curled tight on the trail right at the feet of a man in a bearskin robe. He had the furs pulled around him like a tent so that only his face showed, a pale blob in the shadow. Despite his words about hot lead a rifle gleamed across his lap.
"Patience is a virtue, missy," he finally said. "Glad to see you're a virtuous woman."
"Girl," said Peony automatically.
"Woman with a baby and a rifle's a woman."
She reflected that he was probably right. "Who are you?"
"People called me William."
Called? Now that she was used to the darkness Peony could see his eyes gleaming. "Where am I, William?"
"Where doesn't depend on much, sir, except maybe politics." It was one of Papa's sayings.
"Suit yourself." He nodded at the baby in the crook of her left arm. "Child of God there has a place to be. You might be close to that place. With good will and honesty."
"And patience," said Peony with the first bubble of laughter she'd felt since her family had met the Apache. "Darned if I see how you know this baby."
William made a snuffling noise. "Don't smell like nothing else but summer hay. You see any summer hay around here?"
Peony decided that she was dreaming. Maybe this was her dying dream. It wasn't anything like any sermon she'd ever heard. "So where do I go now?"
"Dog's served you well so far."
"Belle?" Peony asked.
The dog leapt up as if stung, yipped once, then scrambled around William into deeper shadow. Peony could hear Belle's claws clicking on stone as the dog climbed.
"Sir," she said with a polite nod.
William nodded back at her but said nothing more as she followed the dog up a hidden path rising deeper and deeper into a cleft.
After a while Peony noticed a breeze blowing down the path toward her. Its scent was strong enough to overwhelm even her concentration on the miserable pain of her feet. The air smelled of water, and fodder, and summer. Summer hay, in fact.
The click of Belle's claws drew further and further away and the dog began to yip. Peony imagined that dog's paradise of rabbits and water in her future, too. On her left arm the baby woke up and began to cry. She set the carbine down to hold the Child of God close for a moment. Peony shrugged her way into Frank's jacket and bundled the baby underneath the buckskin close to her chest then headed on up the trail some more.
It took her twenty steps or so to realize that she'd forgotten her weapon. Peony didn't care. If there were Indians or angels up there she was dead, carbine or no carbine. If there was summer hay up there she would live, carbine or no carbine.
She missed the weapon mostly for the fact that it was Papa's.
Then she stumbled onto a flat place lit by starlight. The dog raced back and forth before a fire set back in a rock cleft, being chased by children. Long furry arms reached for Peony to pluck the bundled baby from her. Someone tall and gentle helped her to a seat on a stone, drew her boots loose, passed her a crock of cool spring water.
She collapsed with a view of the stars overhead and rhythms of some ancient, familiar song echoing in her ears.
The morning sun and Belle's tongue found Peony's face at about the same time. She blinked herself awake. The dog looked distinctly shaggier than the day before.
There was no fire nearby. No village of tall, proud Children of God. Nothing, in fact, but a grassy ledge and a crock of water standing next to her.
Peony shivered. She studied the pottery of the crock. It had three handprints, brushed on in smaller imitation of the real thing. Two red, one black. Just like the fanged rock down in the canyon.
The water was as sweet as she'd ever tasted. Peony was careful not to spill it as she drank. "You want some, Belle?"
She was amazed at how badly her voice cracked as the dog fell to, tail wagging. The sun wasn't quite where she expected to see it in the sky. Her clothes felt tight. Everything was wrong somehow this morning. Wrong or not, she felt better than she could remember.
Even the thought of her family sent only a little coldness in Peony's heart, rather than a rush of panic and fear.
She set out to explore the ledge. It wasn't much larger than a horse corral, triangular leading back to a cleft where the cliff kept rising. There was no way off or on except the narrow ravine she'd climbed by feel in the dark.
There was no food or water, either, except the crock.
Her dying dream hadn't brought water to her. Something more substantial had occurred.
No baby, no Children of God, no fire. "Perhaps it was a miracle," Peony told Belle. Though as she understood it miracles were a thing best avoided.
The two of them drank about a third of the water in the crock before setting out back down the ravine. Peony took it with her. It wasn't much larger than a whiskey jug, and the pottery was a fine, light grade of stoneware, which meant it didn't weight too much even with the water. Peony was pleased to find her wrists didn't hurt any more. Neither did her feet.
In the morning light the ravine trail was ridiculously steep. She couldn't imagine how she'd gotten up it in the dark with the baby. After about fifteen minutes of careful climbing she found Papa's carbine. The barrel had rust spots and the stock was dusty and cracked, badly in need of oiling.
Peony shivered. The carbine had been in fine condition the day before.
When she reached the bottom of the ravine, where it let out on the gravel, Peony paused inside the shadows to look outward. Wildflowers grew all down the slope and a muddy stream trickled along the canyon floor.
It was spring out there. The day before she'd come up the trail in the height of summer.
Stepping out of the shadows Peony wasn't very surprised to find a moldering pile of bearskins with an old muzzle-loading musket poking out of them. There were no bones in evidence. She set down the crock and the carbine to examine the musket. A brass plate set into the stock was engraved with a worn copperplate script.
'Lieut. Wm. Clark; Battle of Fallen Timbers,' it read.
"William," Peony said to the pile of bearskins. "William Clark, of Clark's Army." He'd be, what, a hundred years old if he was alive? Clark's Army certainly was still alive, but Peony doubted that they had anything to do with the strange old man she'd met last night.
No wonder her clothes didn't fit well. Peony looked at her hands. They were bigger. Breasts strained under her shirt in a way she couldn't remember either. Three seasons had passed, she was almost a year older. She felt like she should be shocked but she wasn't. When she reached for her hair it was the silver fox color of the baby's fur.
They'd taken almost a year of her life, but they'd given her...what? Well being. Health. A mended heart. Peony felt stronger, more fit than ever she had before. And now she would survive, which had not been likely in her most recent yesterday.
She set the musket back down amid the bearskins, and the crock with it after drinking her fill again. "Some gifts are best returned," Peony told Belle.
Apache, angels -- she wasn't sure who had been ultimately responsible for the taking of the baby Child of God and the attack on her family. She had a lifetime to hunt them down, thanks to William Clark and the path he and Belle had set her on when she'd come walking this way. Shouldering her carbine, Peony set off to see what had become of the remains of her family, and what she could do to honor them.
© 2004, 2007, Joseph E. Lake Jr.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.